Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Importance of Underpinnings

I could subtitle this post "When Costuming and Writing Collide," because I'm going to talk about my two loves today. Last weekend I took a short trip with my extended family, which was a blast--they're the sort of nutty, wonderful family that takes a full five minutes to start in on laughing at how Grandma used to frequent the local topless nightclub because they had good steak.


On our brief foray, we ended up doing something that, surprisingly, I've never done before: we attended a Civil War reenactment. It was a very small affair and it was kind of funny to be on the other side. I refrained from asking every costumed individual "Are those clothes hot?" and "Are you really going to eat that?" but I did enjoy being an observer.

And one thing I noticed, that I've noticed in my own reenacting group, was the importance of underpinnings. Several ladies attended, most with lovely reproduction gowns, but only one woman I saw was wearing a proper corset under her gown.

I could have picked her out of a lineup as being the one who was dressed "right." Yes, I have a trained eye. But I bet you could spot the difference, too, even if you don't have much experience with historical clothing.

I want to reiterate--it was a great event and I am not in any way pointing fingers at these ladies. It was goshawful hot, and corsets are one of the more expensive or difficult things to make or purchase, so if you're starting out, you might not have one yet. Still. The look doesn't lie--with a corset, historical snapshot. Without, lumpy costume.

What the heck does this have to do with writing, you might ask?

Well, I'm going to take a quick tangent to answer that. My husband and I watch a lot of sci-fi--he really loves sci-fi, and I geek out a little on the "softer" sci-fi (I cop to loving Stargate). So we've been watching Stargate on Netflix for awhile, and the alien costumes are always bugging me. And I can't place why. I mean, they're often a little corny, and I swear that one of the races has potholders glued to their shoulders. But something else was off.

They're all wearing modern American underpinnings. That is, I assume this, despite generally not seeing alien skivvies, because the silhouette is built around a modern American silhouette.

How unrealistic is that? Every alien race we encounter would have come up with Hanes? No one would wear corsets? Or chest bindings? Or no underthings (no worries, that link is perfectly safe!)?

So how to apply this to writing. Unless you're writing modern America, don't write your characters in modern American underwear. This might seem trivial, except:

1) Underpinnings dictate the silhouette and shape of the outer clothing. So if clothes are a big thing in the world you're writing, whether it be historical, fantasy, or science fiction, know that the basics are more important than the details when it comes to the final product. Not saying you have to share all this with the reader. But you should know so you can accurately depict your characters' wardrobes if need be.

2) Underpinnings dictate how you move. A person is going to move differently in three layers of petticoats and a tightly-laced corset than in a 1920s style corselet. Think about how the clothes shape movement. If you're wearing stockings, you're careful not to get them snagged. If you've got a codpiece on...well, I've never worn a codpiece, but I'm sure it does something to your movement. Now, this isn't to say that all underpinnings are restricting--I've thoroughly bashed that point in this post. But--something to consider as you "block" your scenes.

3) Underpinnings reflect societal norms, ideals, and expectations. Ok, how about some fun image associations? When you see these women, what characteristics do you think of?

Image One: Early 19th Century:

Image Two: Mid-19th Century:

For me, on the first image, I think of natural, sensual, simplicity. The second, I think of delicate, feminine, romantic. Quite a bit of that is informed by the shape of the dress--in the first, simple brassiere-like corded corsets and minimal petticoats formed a simple, natural shape. In the second, an hourglass corset and domed hoop skirt or petticoats formed a romantic, exaggerated feminine shape. These external displays reflected societal preferences. And while the decor on the outside of the gowns supports this, it all starts with the underthings.

If you're a costumer, do you put underthings first? Or am I off my nut? If you're a writer, have you ever written about underpinnings, or thought about them in your world-building? Any great examples you'd like to share?


Jennilee Cookman said...

I usually wear modern underpinnings with my costumes but since the majority of my costumes are steampunk and not reproduction Victorian garments, I feel that its not as important. I do wear bustles and petticoats though. However, one of my biggest pet peeves is seeing someone dressed in a beautiful Civil War era gown with their hoops visible through the skirts because they aren't wearing enough petticoats. I've been contemplating an 18th outfit and if I do that, I will have to do proper underpinnings because modern ones will not give me the proper shape.

Clare S/GentlewomanThief said...

Oh yes, underpinnings even get mentions in A Thief & a Gentlewoman. It's a historical fantasy that's kinda 18th C-ish, with some differences. The MC is a thief and at a ball she pulls up her collapsable pocket hoops on drawstrings to get them out of the way for some climbing. Another time she's disguised as a mercenary woman, who are known to have more freedom and need more physical movement than Ladies of Fashion, and then it's mentioned that she's wearing no stays beneath her clothes - how scandalous!

anachronist said...

Great topic I know nothing about - it only shows how much things there are to be learned...

MrsC said...

Oh I thought you were going to draw some kind of parallel between underpinnings of clothes and underpinnings of plot and story for bit there! And I would agree.
I also agree at how important it is to get things right - and for the character to have a contextual attitude too. 18thC characters complaining about how restricting stays are smack to me of 21st C authors who have never tried any one themselves! What would they have assumed, ignored, been bothered by etc? I love These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer, who main character Leonie was brought up as a boy and has a very believable love/hate relationship with girl's clothes. But then for all her schmulz, GH got the underpinnings of not only her characters' clothes but also their world, bang on.

Rowenna said...

Jennilee--you're right, steampunk gives you some more experimental freedom! I love seeing how different eras and aesthetics come together in steampunk!

Clare--that's awesome! It's really fun to transpose historical fashion onto other settings!


MrsC--Believe it or not, I considered doing an "analogy" post on this! Perhaps there will be a part II later this month :)

Anonymous said...

Underpinnings... how can we ignore them? I for one feel positively awry if my own 21st century underpinnings are uncomfortable, or worse, incorrect. It stands to reason our historical heroines would feel the same. I'm still grappling with 12the century underpinnings of which there were precious few it would seem. How drafty!
As to underpinnings in literature/writing. That is a whole laundry basket of twisted and tangled underclothes...

Isis said...

Proper underpinnings are essential!

I never thought about aliens with modern underwear, but you are right. Ho ho, I will have something new to look for now. :)

One thing that bugs me in historical novels is when the independent heroine hates corsets and usually don't wear them, regardless of historical period. To me that smacks of a lazy way to show independence and it annoys me, as a well-fitted corset isn't that uncomfortabel to wear. After all tight-lacing was an extremed back then, not the norm.